On 'Django' and the negligence of popular culture

Thursday, December 27, 2012

by Shanelle Matthews

A.O. Scott’s ornamentally tailored Times review of ‘Django Unchained’ is excellently written but leaves out two analysis important for movies with historically complex plotlines – socio-historical and cause and effect. I’m not a trained historian and don’t have the skill set to evaluate the omitted socio-historical consideration, so I wont; but one thing in particular was painfully obvious to me – because of the vacillating relationship between popular culture and education we’ve become negligently uninformed. Unfortunately, for many of us, that is a luxury we cannot afford.

It is my personal belief that as a filmmaker (not a self-identified documentarian), Quentin Tarantino is not responsible for educating folks about the historical significance and implications of slavery however, because we live in a country that is more invested in popular culture (including the exploitation and avidity of genocidal, colonial legal institutions like slavery) than education, we are consciously and unconsciously propagating a careless discourse among a nation of folks who have no racial analysis. In other words, because we don’t teach people shit in school about race or other social constructs they leave the theater having received their education (which sometimes informs their behavior) from the likes of Tarantino and Spielberg. This kind of edification leaves the most vulnerable people (LGBT, people of color, women, immigrants, etc.) at the center of an oblivious shit storm.

In response to my frustration, yesterday someone said, “If you want historical accuracy go see Lincoln or watch Roots, otherwise just appreciate the storytelling and great film making.” Lincoln was not historically accurate but that aside, only someone with the privilege of education (obviously unwilling to acknowledge it) would say this.

I know that when I walk into a movie theater I can choose to wear one of two hats: excited, movie enthusiast who will laugh, cry and emote throughout or social and racial justice activist who will hyper-analyze every “nigger,” “bitch” and cringe-inducing scene that appropriates the culture and experiences of marginalized people. I can leave and write something like this or write nothing but feel completely satisfied that I know the difference between what the media teaches us and what really exists.

It is entirely possible, encouraged even, to both watch a movie and be entertained and to think critically about how filmmakers have the luxury of making art (and money) without considering the precarious social implications of  their work. Pending your radicalism, you may decide all together to avoid movies whose historical complexity isn’t coupled with an authentic and comprehensible analysis or like me you may reconcile that some battles can’t be won. Tarantino and other filmmakers have a lot of money to tease out their fantasies. And sadly, they have the privilege of not caring either way how their films inform public opinion – and they don’t have to — but it would be nice if they did. Even better would be a public schooling system that provided every citizen with a comprehensive and expansive global history lesson so upon entering the movie theatre we are all equipped with the skill set to separate fact from fiction.

A.O. Scott called ‘Django Unchained’ “brazily entertaining, brazenly irresponsible and also ethically serious,” and it is all of those. It is both excellently made and very difficult watch. It condemns slavery but delivers some of the most gruesome images I’ve ever seen in doing so. The liberal use of the word “nigger/nigga” and the reverberating laughs from the white faces next to me made my heart sink. Still, I was emotionally moved to tears, laughter and several reactions in between.  I feel some kind of way about Tarantino, a white man, making a U.S. slavery revenge fantasy. I also know that all any living person knows about U.S. slavery is a second hand experience, typically learned through reading and research. Still, welcoming it would have been easier if the director was of the African diaspora.

Exploring the nuanced complexities of movies like “Django” is important to expanding our understanding of how art informs popular culture and therefore public opinion. And while each of us experiences it differently we would all be better served with more contexts, more education and an opportunity to have critical conversations about race and privilege. Tarantino had to know that making this movie, as a White man, would resonate heavily (both positively and negatively) with people of color everywhere; and if that opens up a conduit for honest dialogue, well then it is worth every penny.

Shanelle Matthews is a blogger, new and online media professional and the Communications Manager at Forward Together. Follow her on Twitter @freedom_writer